Beloved Actor Matthew Rhys Discusses Building A Palate Via Whisky And Oysters

If you follow me at all, you know I love Talisker and oysters. Those two items are the cornerstone of my food and drink personality and I will offer no apologies for that. In fact, a big part of my life is introducing people to those two delights and communing with fellow travelers who also love all things Talisker and oysters. I’m happy to report that there are a lot of us out there.

One of my favorite oyster aficionados and Talisker fans is none other than Welsh actor, raconteur, and food bon vivant Matthew Rhys (The Americans, Perry Mason, The Wine Show). So it’s only fitting that with peak whisky and oyster season headed our way (months that end in “R” and all that), we sat down to talk about them both. To be clear, Rhys wasn’t on a press tour when we met up. He took time out of his downtime with his family to discuss this shared devotion.

The conversation below starts off talking about building a whisky palate from youth into adulthood. Then we wound our way toward food pairings and oysters and things just kept on from there. The whole chat ends up like a sitting-in on a whisky bar conversation between two old salts who just want to spread the good word to as many people as possible. Let’s dive in!

Matthew Rhys Talisker Oysters
Martin Scott Powell
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Scotch Whisky Posts of The Last Six Months

I think it’d be safe to say that you have a great palate, what with The Wine Show and the food that you and Matthew Goode get into. But let’s go back in time a bit and talk about your whisky upbringing. Where did your love of whisky start?

That is an evolution based on economics. My introduction to whiskey was basically through necessity in that when we were students, and cheap blended whisky was one of the only things we could afford.

Oh, been there. What was your bottle of choice back then?

There was this whiskey called Jacobite, which was the one that we could afford. It was also one of the only ones at our local store. So we’d get that because, like, we couldn’t deal with those kinds of paint-stripping vodkas that were also that cheap. That whisky was one of the only things that was palatable straight because I never liked and still don’t like putting anything with whisky, like any kind of soda or a mixer. So it started with Jacobite.

Have you ever gone back to see what it’s like now?

If I were to return to Jacobite, I would drink water instead. There are no tasting notes to Jacobite. Either you’re drinking it or not, it really is an economic drink and you treat it that way in your youth. I don’t think I could drink now, honestly.

Everyone has to start somewhere… What was next on your whisky journey?

I think purely because we started on a whisky route, we evolved onto White Horse from there, which was like, you know, a kind of big jump up on quality. I remember thinking, back then, “Oh! This is what whisky is!”

What “taste memory” comes to mind when you think of it now?

It’s like … something … you can actually drink. It didn’t rob your mouth of all sense and sensation.

And then, like so many in our generation, we discovered Jameson and that was it for a long time.

Yup. Been there too. I think Jameson is made for drinking in your 20s. So what was the moment when you graduated to the “good stuff” as they say?

Exactly, I discovered Jameson in my kind of early 20s and I was like, “Oh, this is great!”

Then on one of the first acting jobs I ever did, I remember there was an old man at the bar where I was staying. I walked up and I asked him for a Jameson. And this old man stood at the bar there and he kind of scoffed at me and he went, “I don’t have a fucking Jameson. I have a Lagavulin.”

And, Zach, I said without thinking “What’s that?” And he went, “Oh, dear God.”

He grabbed down a bottle of Lagavulin and pour me a wee dram and sort of slid it over to me with a look of disdain but kind of a smirk too. And I remember, you know, my mind was blown when I had that first Lagavulin.

From there on, I really started my exploration of whisky.

That’s hilarious. I can see that exact old dude in some old whisky bar that you’re talking about. I have a similar story with my father-in-law in Edinburgh — a million years ago now — where I was introduced to Talisker 10 for the first time. I was instantly besotted, and here we are…

It might have been the same old grumpy barkeep!

So, how did your “exploration of whisky” go?

You know, I’m not singularly myopic toward one taste. I enjoy an incredibly wide range of flavors when it comes to whisky, or anything really. But, you know, Zach, if gun to head, I’d have to say I enjoy smoke in my whisky. That’s the one thing I always enjoy.

Matthew Rhys Talisker Oysters
Martin Scott Powell

What about peated smokiness in whisky speaks to you?

God, I’ve never been asked that. I’ve never actually thought or fashioned an answer because … You know, I don’t know what it is about “smoke” as a flavor note to me … It always kind of gives me a small tingle in my jaw and makes me … just relax. I don’t know what that says about me!

I know what you mean, though. It’s more than the flavor notes, it’s the feeling that the whisky makes you actually physically feel that’s kind of brilliant. For me with a good Talisker, there’s a great depth and balance but it’s still understandable — and there’s something about Talisker, for me anyway, that it’s just so balanced.

I totally agree with you about that. I found my kind of nirvana in the balance and I was like, “that’s exactly what I want in a whiskey.” That’s the exact balance of a little bit of everything you still get in there. They are sweet fruit notes. You get a little bit of pepper. There’s a complexity to it that gives you so many different notes. I kind of enjoy the roller coaster of it.

But, God, as to why I like smoke? It’s just always something that I’ve loved, you know, in the same way that I love barbecue. You know, when it’s done on a certain wood? It’s the same thing for me.

Yeah, I think it’s almost something preternatural, isn’t it? It’s something that takes you back to the campfire 100,000 years ago, deep in the DNA. Let’s shift a little to where you are now. We all had those guiding lights that introduced us to new drinks, food, etc. But now, I imagine you’re in the position where you’re that guiding light for people, especially after The Wine Show. People must ask you for recommendations, right?

The show is the show and it’s a sort of day-to-day experience, and it’s great. What happened was that show really opened my eyes even more to so many things. And, yes, a lot more people approach me now and go, “What should I drink?”

That feels like such a personal question to ask. Like, where do you even start to answer?

Exactly. So, I’ll engage when I can and ask, “Well, what do you wear? What films do you like? What music do you like? What art do you like?”

It always amazes me because how can I know what you’d like without knowing you and where your palate is, do you know what I mean? But that’s why I do enjoy tasting whisky and enjoying it with people who don’t really know it. You know, there are so many kinds of whisky. There’s enormous variety and that makes it always exciting to try a new whisky and introduce it to people.

But you still have to find your own palate.

So I think it’s important to answer that question with more questions — “What kind of food do you like? What about spicy food? What candies do you eat?” All of that is important, right? So I suppose it’s me extending the conversation, but I think it’s important information if you really want a recommendation for you and your palate.

Precisely. I’ve just moved from one continent to another and my palate — or whatever you want to call it — has changed pretty intensely. So where you are is also pretty important.

Very important! You know, if I’m in the north of Wales and it’s raining, I don’t need a light fruity bright whiskey. I want something that’s, you know, sort of dark and sooty. I’ll take bright and fruity whisky when I’m looking at a beach in the Bahamas.

Let’s talk about food pairing a bit. I love Talisker over my raw oysters. It’s basically a must-have if you’re at my table. But I also really dig it with rich proteins like a venison shank with stewed berries or as a digestive after a lighter meal. Where do you land on pairing Talisker with a meal around your table?

Now, there’s a question! You know, it hadn’t occurred to me actually about bringing those smoky fruity flavors out of big game flavors. That’s certainly piqued my interest and I’m going to try that.

Still though, sometimes I’m bullish in that regardless of what’s being cooked, I’ll bring out Talisker anyway. As much as I just said, “Oh, yes, Zach, it depends on geography and time of year, and this and that…” I will still pretty much drink a Tali any time of year in any place. So, I guess I’m contradicting myself. But you know what? I don’t really care!

You know, I don’t really care either! It’s what makes finding a whisky you love so great. You can make it work with everything, every time, season, etc.

I totally agree.

Matthew Rhys Talisker Oysters
Zach Johnston

Drilling down a little further, how good is Talisker 10 poured directly over a fresh oyster?

That, to me, was like, “Oh, wow! This is a match made in heaven!” I’m totally, totally in league with that, Zach.

I stole this whole making a show of it from being at Talisker at the Oyster Shack. So, when I’m trying to show off and be a bit of an asshole, I’ll go around the table with everyone and insist they pour some whisky over their oyster before we shoot it and everyone balks at it initially and goes, “Oh my God, that sounds terrible!”

And then they begrudgingly try it while side-eyeing their partner or me. Then I see their eyes light up because, oh, it actually works. And then you look good for having such a clever idea!

But it’s a completely stolen idea.

Oh, for sure. I do the exact same thing at dinner parties where oysters and whisky are present! There’s just something about that pairing that’s just … transcendent.

Steal from the best.

So you sort of hit the jackpot in that the whisky you love brought you on to highlight an amazing project that’s incredibly close to my heart as an oyster fanatic — the Billion Oyster Project in New York. They’re bringing oyster culture back to the New York area, creating jobs, and creating piles of oysters for us all to eat. What’s been your favorite moment working with them so far?

God, there’s been quite a few now, Zach. One time that really stands out is when the Billion Oyster Project throws its annual party. They invite basically every oyster farmer from the U.S., should they wish to come. So you have West Coast and East Coast oysters represented there. It’s held in this enormous warehouse and it’s just lined with crushed ice and oysters from every part of the United States.

Matthew Rhys Talisker Oysters
Martin Scott Powell

As someone with oyster tattoos up his arm, I think I just passed out from envious ecstasy.

It gets better! You grab a glass of Talisker and just walk along the aisles, shucking oysters as you go. It was a moment where I was like … I think I’ve truly found my nirvana in the pairing of these two things in this setting.

I do agree with you that there … there is something about the pairing that’s … Have you been to the distillery?

I have and it’s one of my favorite experiences that I’ve ever had both professionally and personally. It was like going home again in a way that was comforting and exciting at the same time.

I’m very envious because, you know, there are several elements to the distillery there — the sky, the land, the sea — all informing that complexity of the many elements and you sort of experience it through a telescope when you’re there. It’s so focused on that specific place.

I don’t know, maybe it’s the melancholy Celt in me, but I always kind of think that being there lends itself to the experience of drinking. It’s the feeling that you’re part of a greater thing. It’s not just unscrewing a bottle cap and taking a swig. It’s something deeper.

I always say, “If you go to one distillery while you’re in Scotland, it has to be Talisker.” I’d love to pontificate with you endlessly about that point, but I want to end this by asking for a classic Welsh cheers over a glass of whisky. What’s your go-to?

I always adhere to the classic Iechyd Da! And, Zach, that just means “good health!” Because, you know, if you got good health and a glass of whisky, then you’re doing well.

Matthew Rhys Talisker Oysters
Martin Scott Powell